Boomers’ Retirement as Growth Opportunity for College Towns

Published January 20, 2012

Review of The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns, by John L. Gann, Jr. (CarpeHoram, 2011), 8 1//2 x 11 format, 74 pages, $77.95 + $4.95 S&H, or $67.95 for electronic copies. Available directly from the author, Gann Associates, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, (800) 762-GANN (4266), or [email protected].

Can college towns become the nation’s next retirement communities? Community marketing consultant John Gann thinks so, and his book The Third Lifetime Place: A New Economic Opportunity for College Towns sets out to show municipal leaders how they can attract seniors to the places where they spent their college years.

It’s an intriguing thesis, and Gann makes a credible case for this strategy.

Gann does an especially good job of illustrating the potential economic opportunity. The aging of the Baby Boom generation will lead to a surge of retirees over the next generation. Many of these retirees will be looking to relocate, and any influx of residents into a new community creates demand for a variety of goods and services (construction, retail, utility, etc.) that can only be provided by the community itself.

Economic Diversification

Attracting new residents, rather than simply new businesses, can therefore be an important local development tool. Gann believes it’s increasingly important for college towns to diversify their sources of economic growth, because rising tuition costs, competition for research funds, changing demographics, and off-campus learning technologies mean they cannot count on continued growth in the number of college attendees.

Gann also maintains Baby Boomers will act differently from their predecessors when it comes to retirement. Because “boomers are predicted to have the longest, healthiest, most active retirements ever,” they will be looking for more than just sun and sand in their golden years. Gann supports this view with data showing weather ranks surprisingly low as a factor in where people say they want to spend their retirement.

Gann believes college towns are a natural fit for retiring Boomers, because the years spent in college are often the most vibrant and memorable in people’s lives. He also notes college towns have much to offer in terms of cultural, recreational, and lifestyle amenities, typically at a lower cost of living than in major metropolitan areas. College towns are therefore unique in the way they appeal to people’s memories of the past while simultaneously offering an attractive quality of life for the future.

‘Third Lifetime Place’

Gann recommends college town leaders make explicit appeals to alumni in an effort to lure them and their bank accounts back to the place of their alma mater. These pleas should, at least implicitly, tap into the mystique of college towns as a “third lifetime place.” Gann writes that lifetimes are typically divided across three different locales: a first lifetime place where people spend all or most of their childhoods; a second lifetime place where they spend their working years and raise their own families; and a third lifetime place (TLP), which is “an escape from home, a refuge from work, a place of leisure and pleasure.”

He notes that Third Lifetime Places have traditionally been vacation spots, but given the increased importance of college and the large numbers of college graduates, the TLP for more and more Americans will be the town where they spent their college years.

Gann puts forward a comprehensive case for the benefits of this approach and why it is likely to be more effective than the “conventional solutions” college towns have pursued to promote local development. He also presents a detailed marketing strategy for packaging and marketing the benefits of college towns to retirees. This strategy includes an assessment of the various challenges involved in TLP-based economic development.

Two Assumptions

Nevertheless, the success of Gann’s community development strategy hinges on two assumptions.

The first is that senior citizens will choose to relocate to the towns where they attended college simply because of nostalgic memories from more than 40 years before. This seems unlikely, because priorities change over the course of a life, and what may have been important in your twenties (live music, a great bar scene, and a lively environment that makes it easy to meet the opposite sex) could actually be the opposite of what you’re seeking in retirement (relaxation and minimal stress).

The second is that the quality of the weather will have a minimal impact on Boomers’ retirement decisions. Regardless of what people say on opinion surveys, when it comes time to vote with their feet, seniors still flock to Florida or Arizona rather than Maine.

This is hardly surprising, because ice and cold are especially troublesome when you don’t get around as well as you used to. And since retirees find themselves with much more free time, it’s easier to fill this time enjoyably when the weather doesn’t force you indoors for as much as half of the year. I would therefore expect towns like Gainesville, Florida and Athens, Georgia to find more success with Gann’s approach than Ann Arbor, Michigan or Ithaca, New York.

Larry Kaufmann ([email protected]) is senior advisor at Pacific Economics Group in Madison, Wisconsin.